I had been to Barcelona no more than a day and I was already in love with it. Old Barcelona's walking streets gave me this feeling of being transported to a time gone by. I discovered many restaurants and stores with hardly a sign in front hidden in the maze of walk ways. Which begs the question. How do any of these businesses stay in business? For one, these side streets are not visible. Two, the thought of walking in a dimly lit street at night wouldn't entice me with an invitation to patronize such businesses. But for some reason, they stay afloat. I'm assuming it's because the locals approach advertising in the city of Barcelona differently. I believe they still depend on word of mouth to keep the longevity of their business. That's old school yo! I slowly walked around and touched the walls of the buildings as if they had something to say. I let my guard down a little. Well, not that much. My mama didn't raise no fool! I know this city is famous for its pickpockets. Most of these side streets are dark and dimly lit. But I can't help but relax and be a little immersed in the beautiful culture this city, in the land of my ancestors, was offering me.
When I told friends and family about my trip across the pond, they made great suggestions on where to go and where to eat. I wholeheartedly took everyone's advice and did some research on all of the sights and restaurants that were mentioned. I was pretty surprised. I expected the food in Paris to be excellent. I wasn't expecting the food in Barcelona to be great as well. The food had a life of its own. And the architecture looked out of this world, literally. I had fun taking directions from friends on how to find these places. It made me feel like I was a contestant on the show Amazing Race. It became gratifying when I found the destination. One of these gems was Cal Pep, a small restaurant on the corner of a Placa de les Olles. It had a counter and stools in front like a diner and a sit down area in the back. The fun definitely resided in front. There's a line that formed on the back wall to take a spot at the bar. Once I got seated, I told them that I didn't know what to order so just give me two things that they think is the best and serve it to me. I wasn't worried. I trusted them. I pretty much eat everything anyway. The first dish they gave me was a bowl of tiny fish floured and deep fried topped with a sunny side egg. It was amazing. The next dish I had was pieces of filet mignon served with scalloped potatoes. It melted in my mouth it was that good. Don't let the plating fool you though. This is not a $$$$ restaurant. Aesthetics may not be their forte. However, I walked out of there greatly satisfied with my choices.
As I walked out of Cal Pep, I had this sense of accomplishment. I had been speaking in Spanish whenever I can and getting a grasp of my surroundings. It's easy to think that a city can overwhelm a person. One way to solve this is to walk around. Discover what's out there. Walk three more blocks outside of the hotel vicinity. And as I was walking around, getting lost in the streets of Barcelona, I saw a small crowd gathered outside an entrance to this large stone Baroque Palace on Carrer de Montsarrat. I have to admit, I didn't even realize it was some sort of a palace because the streets were so narrow I could hardly see up. But I was very curious about the crowd that was forming outside of it. A man was at the front of this gate. He was speaking in Spanish so fast, I couldn't understand him. To his right, I noticed a flyer that caught these pretty brown eyes. I saw Flamenco dancers under the dance troupe name Palau Dalmases on a picture and the days and times they were performing. One of those days was that day, a Saturday. And they were sold out of the matinee but had plenty of tickets for the 7pm show and the 9pm show. I showed interest with the Spanish that I know.
There were two things I was set on doing when I got to Spain; eating really good Paella and seeing an amazing Flamenco performance. I walked passed the gate to buy a ticket. As I was talking to the man selling them, I noticed this eerie music come on. I didn't think anything of it. But then, seconds later, it started creeping me out. And as I was paying the man the money for this ticket, I looked up to see this beautiful cobblestone patio with a guy walking slowly towards the entrance. After looking much closer, I realized that he had two horns on his head, dark make-up on his face and a big knife on each hand that he started to sharpen. I looked back at the ticket seller and mentioned to him that this must be real good. He reassured me that I was not ready for what's to come. I then reassured him, that I've been waiting for this for a very long time. I walked away oozing with excitement for what's to become of my evening.
I waited patiently all day for this event. I contemplated going to the Picasso museum to make use of my time. I love Picasso. I did get some hearsay from friends and locals alike that it wasn't the best exhibit of his work. Plus, I asked the attendant outside about taking pictures and she said it was prohibited. How am I supposed to blog about it without pictures? Cubism is hard to describe. With all these points against it, I opted to forego that experience.
I have seen a few Flamenco performances in my youth. In retrospect, none of them seemed to be of any authenticity. After doing some research, I did discover that the art of Flamenco originated from the region of Andalucia; the southernmost part of Spain. Here is where the gypsies slowly but surely formed the art of Flamenco high in the mountains and away from the authorities who persecuted their lifestyle. The original style of Flamenco called Cante jondo was a formless freestyle. Singers with gravelly voices would derive from their lives and sing about darkness and pain that they have experienced without time signature or written words, clapping in syncopated rhythms to enhance the agitation. The performance I was about to see was derived from this. But of course, the style has also evolved to include the art of dance and guitar which is what modern times has come to understand of Flamenco. It also included another part which performers of the art call "Duende." It is the soul that takes over when somebody opens up to the art and the art takes over.
When I walked inside the Baroque Palace on Carrer de Montcada, I was treated to an ambiance that lent itself to what was about to come. There were exposed brick walls and curved archways in a dark lit room with chairs lined up in rows and coffee tables between every two chairs, all of which faced the small stage in front of the back wall. Of course the first thing on my agenda was to approach the bar on the right side and immerse myself in the culture by drinking a glass of red wine made from the tempranillo grape in the Rioja region of Spain. Gosh! Things are much better from where they came from. That glass of Rioja could compete with some of the best French red wines I've tasted. My next job was to find my assigned seat. Thankfully, I was seated on the second row and just stage left of the center. The lights dim even lower and we are treated to a guitar player plucking away at a Spanish guitar introducing us to the performance. A gentleman with a pony tail joined him singing in a style influenced by a middle eastern vibe. His voice was so distinctly gravelly, I can still hear him in my head. Plus it helps that I recorded him singing. It was beautiful and painful at the same time. So even before the drummer started giving us some rhythm by tapping on his wooden box and before the dancers started tapping with their shoes, I was already so wide eyed. Tingles started to form on the back of my neck and slowly started spreading throughout the rest of my body. The music was tugging on my heart strings. When a performance is really good, no matter what kind of music or genre it is, it just takes over my being and affects me uncontrollably. After a few minutes of performing a solo, a beautiful woman donning a yellow and black polkadot dress enters the stage slowly and shows the audience the elegance of the art of Flamenco. The music was whimsical and playful and she delivered it with a smile on her face. By the end of this number, the tempo has accelerated to double time and she has done turns and intricate arm movements. The climax of the number was exciting, filled with high energy. Everyone was into it. The audience started clapping to the rhythm and was yelling for the performer to give it her all. And that's exactly what she did. It was so inspiring. For a lack of a better word, she was fierce. She didn't break a sweat or her smile.
She performed a few numbers. Then they took a little break. God knows this isn't the easiest of the performing arts vessels. And they also probably wanted to take a break so that the audience can replenish their drinks and in turn make the house some money. I got to meet a few people seated in my vicinity. On my left was a beautiful Spanish couple dressed to impress and ready for whatever that Saturday night was going to take them. They were pretty chatty during the performance. I didn't make a fuss about it. How I was raised, nobody talks during a performance. For all I know, that's how the Spanish take in Flamenco performances. It's like background music for their evening of nice conversations. I made the smart decision of not making a comment. On my right was a mother daughter duo who were German. The daughter lives in Barcelona and the mother was visiting with an extensive knowledge of Flamenco. All of whom have congregated and concluded that the current performance we were experiencing was out of this world and is probably the best Flamenco any of us has seen. The German mother was confused why she's been to the south of Spain and nothing has compared to the performance she was currently seeing. The couple informed us that dance troupe we were seeing was not from Barcelona and that they were in fact from Andalucia. How blessed was I to have landed on this little gem on the street. I was gonna try to search for a good Flamenco performance in Madrid. The short research I came across led me to a few places that cost around 60 euros. Compared to the 20 euros I shelled out for this one that included a drink ticket, I believe it was meant to be.
Finally, it was time for the second half of the show to start. I was treated to another one of the female dancers. She wore a tan dress with fringe on her chest, ruffles on the bottom and a rose piercing the tightly pulled bun on the back of her head. She meant serious business; not a smile in sight; as if playing a character of a woman who's experienced so much pain, she had no more emotions to convey. The character she was portraying seemed spent. She started with a slow fluid arm choreography enticing the audience with the softness of her arms. After a minute, she began stomping on the wooden stage slowly but surely. She was stern with her performance. Every beat attacked was not without purpose. This went on for a while. I could feel the energy building up. The performers started yelling. The beat became faster. The audience started to join in on the clapping. She stomped on that wood stage like it was her job! Er, wait! That is her job. She expelled so much energy stomping rapidly from stage left to stage right introducing my ears to syncopations I've never heard before. And on the loudest of decibals so far, she struck the air with her fist above her, behind her and finally on the side signaling simultaneously, with the musicians, the end of her performance. WOW! How did they know when to end it? I was floored. I had a hunch that the whole performance was improvised just the way I've read about it. It must be a different performance every show. But there must be some kind of structure to it. How else would all of them know when to stop simultaneously? It's like the blues of the Old World. There's freedom to create a different piece each performance, but they follow some guidelines.
I was still in awe from the previous performance when the music started playing for the next and final dancer. She walked up the stage excruciatingly slow as the singer and guitar player howled a haunting introduction. She was different. She wore a fiery red two piece pants suit that commanded the audience's attention. It was screaming, "I am the future of Flamenco! I am angry and not willing to be compromised by traditions of performing in a dress!" When the stage lights revealed her face from the darkness, she had a snarl on her face. She wasn't fucking around. She wanted to convey the history of pain and suffering among the Gypsy people when the art was formed. She made me believe it. She smiled sometimes; a naughty smile; a smile with an agenda; not a smile to seem approachable in front of an audience. She slithered around the stage bringing everyone into the story she wanted to convey. She stomped once then proceeded to use her arms again. She stomped a second time just to tease us with what is about to happen. She was technically trained. I saw her squeeze in a triple pirouette ( a triple ballet turn on one leg) here and there. She's fancy! And then the anticipation led to reveal what we were all waiting for. She started to stomp with the beat. The anger on her face spread to her legs and feet. She proceeded to stomp forcefully. By the look on her face, I think she was starting to be overcome by the Duende, the spirit of Flamenco. SHE HAD HER STANK FACE ON! The intensity of her stomping reached a level I didn't see from the two previous girls. She was stomping furiously almost as if there was smoke coming from the stage she struck and the next stomp would cause a fire. The ferocity of this woman was out of control! I didn't want it to end. I thought she was going to pass out on stage. There is something to be said for the act of dying on stage. It's so dramatic! And figuratively, she was dying on stage. The Duende was taking over. She took her last breathe and stomped her last beat with the musicians. It was so out of this world, I felt like I transcended myself. The Spanish couple to my left stood up and motioned for me to get out of my trance and give the performers a standing ovation. I wholeheartedly obliged. They yelled out VIVA LA ANDALUCIA! Brilliant! Long live the origins of this amazing art!
The room emptied out and I was left inspired on my seat talking to the German mother daughter duo about what just happened in front of us. They were moved as well. Man was I lucky enough to have stumbled upon this tiny little gem of a dance troupe called Palau Dalmases! It goes to show you, some of the best things happen when you're not planning it. I said my goodbyes to the ladies outside the venue and started to walk back to my hotel. The second I did, this strong feeling of asking the ladies to have a nightcap with me started to come up in my head. It was my second night being alone in Europe and I made it a point to follow my instincts or I might have some regrets on this trip. So I turned around to ask the ladies if they wanted to have one more drink with me. Alas, they disappeared in the sea of tourists and locals alike on the dimly lit Carrer de Montcada. Nevertheless, I had a smile on my face and whispered "viva la Andalucia!" before I, myself, turned around and vanished into the dark arms of Barcelona, accepting the end of the evening.
For more information, please visit www.palaudalmases.com and www.calpep.com